Movie publicity tends to promise far more than the movies actually deliver. That’s why it’s such a pleasant surprise when a movie actually pays off more than we expect. "The Great Debaters" is one of the few films of 2007 that underpromises and overdelivers.
In 1935, the debate team from Wiley College, a small black school in Texas, debates the team from Harvard University. Professor Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington) leads students Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett) and James Farmer Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) to wins over every black college around until the white academic establishment can’t ignore them. Tolson asks many schools for the chance to compete, but only Harvard gives them a chance.
The film is based on a true story (we’ll get back to that soon), and considering its enormous implications, that little event alone would make quite a film. But much more is at stake here than whether a minority debate team from a little college can beat a team from an Ivy League school.
The team encounters various displays of racism, from blatant and brutal to subtle and insulting. In scenes reminiscent of "The Grapes of Wrath," Tolson helps organize and motivate sharecroppers — both black and white — to unionize. He is then persecuted for his leftist (probably Communist) politics.
Booke is the first woman ever on the debate team and she embodies all women’s battles for equality. All the male characters struggle to maintain their sense of manhood during a time when society made it very hard to do so.
And all of this is placed against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most significant cultural moments in American history.
Such complex material elevates what might have been a run-of-the-mill David vs. Goliath story into a compelling slice of American social history and a rousingly motivational film.
Washington directed and his name appears above the title, but he seems happy to allow the young cast to steal the show. Parker, in fact, resembles a young Denzel Washington. Both are able to communicate volumes through only facial expressions. Smollett devours the camera, and Denzel Whitaker (no relation to castmate Forest Whitaker) is a wonderful surprise in what becomes the central role of the whole film. Expect bigger things from each of these promising actors.
The film does have a couple of puzzling weaknesses. They condense the debate season into a montage straight out of a bad sports movie. They also chose to change a major detail of the real story: Wiley College actually debated a team from the University of Southern California. True, USC doesn’t have the weighty reputation of Harvard, but it detracts from an otherwise authentic movie.
Despite these things, "The Great Debaters" is essential viewing. It’s enjoyable and moving to watch, and it will spark conversation and curiosity about the real characters.
It’s one of those rare, genuinely inspiring movies. It also incorporates healthy chunks of historical references, which makes it a valuable movie for middle school and high school audiences. If nothing else, Tolson, Booke and Farmer each went on to become cultural heroes, and learning about them is worthwhile, especially for young viewers.
No matter your race, gender or age, though, you won’t find a more inspirational film in 2007.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.